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Does Donald Trump have a future in the GOP?

Then-President Donald Trump at a campaign rally at

Then-President Donald Trump at a campaign rally at Williams Arena in Greenville, N.C. on July 17, 2019. Trump's future in the GOP remains very much in the air Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster

We all remember Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign promise: "We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning." His latest win, three weeks after the end of his presidency, is an acquittal in his second impeachment trial — and we’re definitely sick and tired. But this dubious win, in which 57% of the Senate voted to convict the former president of inciting an insurrection — a decisive majority, though short of the two-thirds necessary for conviction — may be the beginning of Trump’s final defeat.

For now, Trump is still the Republican Party’s powerful and feared leader: All seven Republican senators who voted for conviction faced instant rebukes from their states’ Republican parties. So far, this solidifies the image of the GOP in 2021 as a party dedicated to what one of the seven rebels, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, calls "the weird worship of one dude."

But will this last?

One remarkable thing that happened after the end of the trial was that Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), currently the most powerful Republican in Washington, D.C., delivered blistering remarks condemning Trump. His explanation of why he couldn’t vote to convict — impeachment is a tool to remove a sitting officeholder, not to condemn one who is already out of office — is easily seen as hypocritical, given that he wouldn’t hold a trial when Trump was still president. Yet the condemnation means something.

McConnell did not mince words: "There’s no question — none — that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day." He said that Trump incited the assault on Capitol Hill by making wild claims about a stolen election. He noted that Trump was "happily" watching television while a mob of "criminals" was assaulting the Capitol "screaming their loyalty to him."

It’s a powerful picture. It’s also one confirmed by the evidence produced during the truncated trial, including a remarkable statement by Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Butler of Washington that was read into the record. Butler said that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told her about a tense phone conversation with Trump during the riot when Trump apparently sided with the insurrectionists, telling McCarthy, "I guess they’re more upset about the election than you are."

McConnell is not the only prominent — and previously loyal — Republican to come out with strong words against Trump. On Friday, Politico published an interview in which former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, a onetime Trump critic turned supporter, said Trump had "lost any sort of political viability" and fallen too far to remain a force in the party. She also said Trump "went down a path he shouldn’t have" after losing the election and that "we shouldn’t have followed him."

Haley is seen as a 2024 contender for the GOP presidential nomination, and her move to disown Trump is significant. So is the fact that she promptly hedged her bets: after giving the interview to Politico, but before it was published, she told Fox News’ Laura Ingraham that she opposed the second impeachment.

For now, Trump’s future in the GOP remains very much in the air. He may be facing criminal charges. He's keeping a fairly low profile, despite a nasty letter slamming McConnell and a planned mini-rally on Presidents Day. His radically diminished presence in the public square may be slowly deflating his base. If more Republican leaders and conservative media figures find the courage to condemn both his lies about election fraud and his behavior on Jan. 6, they have a real chance to break his stranglehold on the party.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

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